Merry Christmas


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Middle East


Christmas celebrated in IsraelChristmas comes three times each year to the city of Bethlehem. While the Western Church and Russian Orthodox Church both celebrate Christmas on December 25, the Russian Church still uses the old Julian calendar which places their celebration on January 7 according to our calendar. The Armenian Church celebrates on January 6 by the Julian calendar, which translates as January 19 to us. To add to the confusion, our January 6 celebration of Epiphany overlaps into the Russian Christmas.

The Church of the Nativity was built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century over the ruins of an older church built by the Emperor Constantine and his mother, St. Helena. That church had been built to replace a temple to the Greek god Adonis. All of these structures were built over a series of caves that were considered to be the location of Christ's birth.

The church was nearly destroyed by invading Persians in the seventh century, however they stopped when they came upon a mural of the Magi that depicted the Kings in Persian dress.

There is a fourteen-pointed silver star marking the location of the original manger. It was donated by the Turkish Sultan after a previous star had disappeared. The floor around it is marked in Latin, Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est, "Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born."

Christmas Eve services traditionally begin at Shepherds' Field and then move on to the church. There is room for only a few hundred people at the Mass and they are there by invitation only. Outside in Manger Square the service is broadcast on huge television screens to thousands of people who have joined together to be close to this special Christmas celebration.

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About two weeks before Christmas people in Lebanon and else where in the Middle East plant seeds - chickpeas, wheat grains, beans, lentils - in cotton wool. They water the seeds every day and by Christmas the seeds have shoots about 6 inches in height. People use the shoots to surround the manger in nativity scenes. Figures are made from brown paper, as well a star is placed above the scene.

Traditionally throughout the Middle East people visit friends on Christmas morning and are offered coffee, liqueurs and sugared almonds. Lunch at Christmas is the most important meal of the season and the whole family gathers together for it, usually at grandparents or the eldest sons' home. The meal consists of chicken and rice, and Kubbeh, which is made up of crushed boiled wheat (burghul) mixed with meat, onion, salt and paper.

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Syria is in the Middle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey. Other neighbors include Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

On Christmas Eve, the outer gates of the homes of Syrian Christians are locked as a reminder of the years of persecution when all worship had to be hidden. Carrying lighted candles, the family prepares a bonfire in the courtyard. The youngest son reads the Gospel story of the Nativity and the father lights the fire. All gather around to observe the particular way that the fire spreads through the wood as it will determine the luck of the household for the coming year. The family sings psalms while the bonfire rages and, when it finally dies down, they make wishes while they take turns jumping over the embers.

Early on Christmas morning, there is a pre-dawn Mass. A bonfire in the center of the churchyard provides light for a joyous procession where the image of the Christ Child is carried around the church, both inside and outside the building.

camelSyrian children receive gifts at Epiphany from a very original source, the Smallest Camel of the Wise Men. Legend tells that the Wise Men travelled in a caravan with many camels on their way to Bethlehem. The smallest camel was exhausted by the long journey but refused to give up, his desire to see the Christ Child was so great. When the infant Jesus saw the faith and resolve of this loving creature, he blessed it with immortality. Every year the Smallest Camel visits the children with gifts for those who have been good. It is thought that they learn the importance of even the most insignificant of us from example set by the camel.

Traditions from other nations are making inroads in Syria. In this photo of Hamidiyeh Souk in Damascus, shoppers can find all kinds of Christmas tree decorations along with red stockings to hang up on Christmas Eve.

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Saint NicholasSt. Nicholas was born in Patara around A.D. 280 in Asia Minor and became bishop of Myra, now Demre, in Turkey. (Myra is a three hour bus ride across the mountains from Patara.)

The only definite historical evidence of his life is in the records of the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was responsible for creating the Nicene Creed, a famous statement of doctrine. He was definitely in attendance, although it's not known what role he may have played in the meetings and deliberations.

Nicholas probably suffered in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian, which lasted until about 311, at which time he would have been around 31-years-old. The new emperor, Constantine, tolerated and then encouraged and finally established Christianity as the state religion. Nicholas died about 343.

It was not long after his death that the legends began and his popularity began to spread.

Saint Nicholas lived his adult life in Myra, where he was the bishop of the city. The Church of Saint Nicholas, in Myra, was built after his death. "Noel Baba's" remains were placed in a rock sarcophagus. Outside the church, in a lush and beautiful park, is a modern statue of Saint Nicholas complete with beard, bag of toys, and children. Unlike the American Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is depicted as a tall thin man, dressed in a hooded robe.

An annual St. Nicholas Festival is held in Myra, for three days around the saint's official Feast Day, Dec. 6. The celebration attracts many tourists who spend their Christmas holidays on the sunny coast of ancient Lycia.

Myra contains other impressive ruins. A mile north of Saint Nicholasís church, Lycian tombs are carved, stories high, into a hillside above a Roman amphitheater. They are an impressive sight and should not be missed.

Antalya, the main town of Turkey's Mediterranean coast, is a scenic four to five hour bus ride from Myra. Antalya is a vibrant metropolis, not only from the tourist trade but because it is a major Turkish port. The town's Archaeological Museum contains several bone fragments of the former Bishop of Myra, in a red-lined case. Only these few fragments have been preserved in Turkey, while the rest were removed to Italy.

Other than the St. Nicholas recognition in Myra, Christmas is not a major holiday in Turkey.

Christmas is a Christian tradition and even though there are a lot of Jewish or Christian people who live in Turkey, the main religion is Islam so they don't have Christmas celebrations as part of their national traditions. Turkey's main celebration in late December salutes the outgoing year and welcomes the new year.

For the last ten or twenty years in Turkey, people began to use pine trees as a decoration for the New Year celebration, however, this is receiving criticism from some religious groups.

Champagne Corks and Fireworks

For the past decade people have gathered in city circles to greet the New Year with champagne and fireworks.

There are companies that build giant screens at the circles so people can watch what is happening at the other cities of the world.

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Iran is in the Middle East, bordering the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea, between Iraq and Pakistan. Christians make up less than 1% of the population, therefore it is not a legal holiday.

Christians in Iran, call Christmas the "Little Feast." Easter is the "Big Feast." The month of December, prior to Christmas, is a period of fasting during which no meat, eggs, milk, or cheese may be consumed.

Christmas is a religious and family celebration. Gifts are not exchanged, however, children are usually given new clothes, just as the children in some other nations receive new clothes at Easter time.

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